Editor’s Note: The scientific method is considered the best at explaining natural phenomenon – for good reason. However, science also has limitations.
First, science has a limited scope. It requires evidence beyond reasonable doubt for any explanations to be considered reliable. It can only make predictions based on those explanations. What if there are some real phenomena that cannot be “proven” yet? In that case, what alternative assumptions do we use to make predictions?
Second, (quite contrarily to what most scientists claim) science is not value free. And science cannot be value free, as long as the scientists remain value laden.
The alternative assumptions that science uses to make real life predictions are based on those values of the scientists, and of science as a field of study. Most often than not, these values support the status quo.
There is a reason that climate scientists have repeatedly failed to make reliable predictions about the upcoming ecological collapse. The sooner that scientists accept and acknowledge these (and other) limitations, the better it is for the natural world! The following piece explores some of these issues.
By Brian Lloyd / Resilience
A bit later he flashed a chart with different sized circles designed to contrast the amount of coal, gas, and oil we now use to power our economy with the amount of what he called “transition metals” (most prominently lithium, cobalt, and nickel, along with aluminum and steel at the end of the list) that would be consumed in a green economy. The circles for the fossil fuels (figures were from 2019) were huge, as one might expect, visually dominating the chart. There were two circles for the transition metals, both quite puny by comparison, which was the point of the graphic. The first represented the amount of these metals consumed in 2020, its puniness attributable to the fact that the transition had only begun. The second circle represented the same variable for 2050 – a projection based on what somebody had calculated all this might amount to at the end of the transition.
His third tactic for handling the skepticism he knew to be festering in audiences like this was to pin it all on the fossil fuel companies. Like the cigarette makers of yore, the bad guys in this story were muddying the waters so they could keep their product burning at full volume into the future. The implication seemed to be that if you were experiencing any of this skepticism you were being duped by industry propaganda. It was not reason but partisan skullduggery that was prompting your misgivings about the green energy script.
Call me a narcissist if you must, but my misgivings arose from my own reading around in these issues and they were not being quelled by this presentation. I balked at the size of the 2050 circle – is it really possible to calculate, from where we sit now, all the materials a fully green economy would consume? Given the scale of this construction project and the unknowns sure to crop up along the way, an estimate made a quarter century before completion is bound to be an underestimation – most likely a sizable one. And were these calculations inflected in any way by a partisanship, opposed to that of the fossil fuel propagandists but in play nonetheless, that I should worry about? Early in the presentation the speaker had flashed a chart showing that “total energy-related CO2 emissions” had peaked and were trending steadily downward. He urged the audience to take pride in what had been accomplished and cautioned that we not grow complacent, as if the hard work of transition might be behind us. That was puzzling. If one consults any available graph for total CO2 emissions, one will discover that they continue to trend upwards. This fact has been widely reported and causes much consternation among those alarmed by climate change. I do not know what had to be excluded from consideration to get the downward-trending graph – i.e., exactly how “total energy-related CO2 emissions” differs from “total CO2 emissions” – but it was apparent that the speaker had selected the celebratory numbers so we might feel that we were on the right road and just needed to do more of what we were already doing in the way of sustainability to get things fully under control. The maneuver called to mind the factors Menand left out of his review of neoliberalism and, for me, drained the last bit of credibility out of the teeny 2050 “transition metals” circle.
The costs of digging some holes in the ground become more tangible if we visit a place where that is already underway. A New York Times correspondent recently (08/18/2023) filed a report on a Chinese mining facility in Indonesia, which has some of the world’s largest deposits of nickel. Chinese investors wanted to mine and smelt this critical “transition metal” (needed in batteries for electric vehicles) offshore so the operation would not add to the already poor air quality of most Chinese cities. The project proved a boon for local merchants who service the thousands of workers drawn to the site but every other impact was devastating. An aerial photograph of the site looks eerily like those taken of the Athabascan tar sands in western Canada – a lunar landscape of total ecological destruction. Pools of toxic waste nestle up against farmland. Those who make their living from agriculture – who, in the reporter’s phrase, “coaxed crops from the soil,” as if they were the ones out of synch with nature here – voiced sharp opposition to the project, as one would expect. Locals don masks on bad days; health clinics are full of people reporting lung ailments. Hours at the smelter are long, working conditions are horrendous, deadly accidents are commonplace. Non-native workers often find that their visas have been confiscated; a disturbing number choose suicide as their only avenue of escape. They wear helmets that signal by color their rank in the job hierarchy – yellow for those on the bottom, red, blue, and white for the workers and supervisors tiered by category above them. Nearly all the yellow helmets are worn by Indonesians, the rest by Chinese. The immigrant Chinese are sometimes prohibited from leaving the vicinity of their barracks lest the mere sight of them fan the animosity of native Indonesians into violence. Protests against the pollution and the caste labor system have been brutally suppressed by police and, when necessary, Indonesian army units.
Conditions such as these were not represented in the green visionary’s cost-of-transition circles. The mathematical representations diverted our attention from such realities as could be observed by the naked eye and invested our hopes in the very development – a growing “green economy” – that brought those conditions into being. This maneuver transported the discussion to a place beyond the reach of moral judgment. Anything that might provoke outrage – what most of us feel when we read about such things – had to be excluded so that the work of empirical calculation could proceed unsullied by any outpouring of empathy. Beyond that, these are just some holes in the ground. Rabbits and groundhogs, whom we tolerate, dig them too.
Also visible at the site, but buried within his math, were the energy sources that undermine the green visionary’s “we’ve bent the curve, people” cheeriness. Along with millions of tons of mined nickel spilled across the Sulawesi landscape, the reporter observed a “structure the size of several airplane hangars [holding] mountains of coal waiting to be fed into the park’s power plant to generate electricity.” Of course he did. All the major components of the “green economy” – windmills, photovoltaic cells, EV batteries – require fossil fuels for their production.
China licenses two new coal-fired electricity-generating plants a week to power its manufacturing facilities, including the ones that make those components. That is why CO2 emissions continue to rise with the numbers for renewable energy usage. As the fossil fuel companies are well aware, it is an integrated system. The economy envisioned by “green growth” enthusiasts, with its carbon capture scams and electrify everything fantasies, gives those companies a new lease on life. If they are to be put down, it will be by other means.
The reporter placed Jamal, a construction worker hired to build dormitories to accommodate the influx of smelter workers, at the center of his story. He had boosted his income by building a few rental units of his own and used that money to put tile on his floors and an air conditioner in his house. The “crux” of the matter, which the reporter derived from Jamal’s situation, was the trade-off Indonesians seemed willing to accept – “pollution and social strife for social mobility.” As Jamal put it, “the air is not good but we have better living standards.”
That does get us to the heart of things, although not in the way Jamal or the reporter imagines.
Notice that air quality is not perceived to be a component of living standards. The ecological and economic values are segregated, calculated separately, and then thrown on the scales to achieve the unhappy balance that marks the arrival of a reasonable conclusion. It mimics exactly Menand’s analysis of neoliberalism and every other account you will find online about nickel mining in Indonesia or, indeed, the mining and manufacture of anything needed for the “green transition.” The script is classically tragic – a lamentable situation unfolds that people, the reasonable ones at least, must accept as their share of a fated outcome.
So we look away from the holes in the ground and carry on, sadder perhaps but wiser. We collect data and mind our business. We add well-trained voices to those tasked with prettifying an administration which is building out the infrastructure for fossil fuel production faster and bigger than anybody. We applaud glitzy, upbeat presentations that assure us we can keep the consumer extravaganza going with batteries and solar panels. Nothing seems to shake our faith in the righteousness of that extravaganza, even as we are beset at every turn, in our communities and our homes, by despair and unhappiness.
There are plenty of bad actors in this story but rest assured that I am not placing anyone I have refenced here in that category. The explanations and projections of these observers fall short, as I see it, because they are coming at things with a stock of assumptions that is being depleted along with everything else. The intellectual climate, too, has grown chaotic. More precisely, a fissure has opened up between two ways of being reasonable. The old one, in place since the scientific revolution and on display in the arguments I have reviewed, is showing itself to be inadequate to the challenges – to reliable comprehension and sensible conduct – we now face. But a new one has arisen to supplant it. Those who nudged me in a new direction are not monks scribbling away in a monastery but writers with large readerships (Braiding Sweetgrass stayed on the NYT best seller list for over two years). The commitments that bind them as a group – to holism rather than dualism; to ecological rather than reductionist approaches to the natural world; to beauty and mutuality as defining features of that world and the need to take both into account when engaging with it for any purpose; to the worth and significance of every being, not just the humans, on the scene; to the value of being rooted in a particular place if we are to live free, well, and wisely – are shared as well by the millions of ordinary folks worldwide who have never been pried loose from these commitments in the first place. Further, those aspiring to be reasonable in this way exhibit remarkable diversity in political and religious beliefs. Among them you can find reactionaries and radicals, Christians and Buddhists, animists and atheists. Established methods for sorting out and evaluating political options and spiritual possibilities, like the old way of being scientific, have been compromised by serious weather damage. They are not worthy of repair. A new mass constituency for fundamental change – the new way of reasoning made flesh – is visible amidst the blight and the rot. No member of this constituency would find it reasonable to trade clean air for cheap household items, health and justice for toys and gadgets.
Here is real cause for optimism. Here is a transition sure to reward the hopes we place in it. The change in consciousness that must happen if we are to live within the planetary limits we have so foolishly imagined we could ignore is underway. Too slowly, and as yet on too small a terrain, but it is underway.